“The personal is political”, a slogan of radical feminism in the 1970s, has now become true. A family dinner would have once been considered a safe space for the personal and the private. But in March this year as the President of the Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs, complained about the limits of the government’s political control when she lamented “Sadly you can say what you like around the kitchen table at home”. In Australia there’s now an ever-decreasing number of places where it’s safe to express an opinion. If Gillian Triggs had her way there’d be even fewer. And there’s an ever-growing number of organisations attempting to determine people’s opinions. Institutions that once provided a refuge from politics are now a hotbed of it.
For example, anyone watching this weekend’s NRL Grand Final will hear American rapper Macklemore sing a song in support of same-sex marriage. His comment that he’ll be performing in front of “angry old white dudes” provides an interesting perspective on what the NRL thinks of its paying customers.
It’s no surprise that political partisanship has increased and the perceived divide between people of different opinions is widening. There’s fewer and fewer locations and situations where you can engage in a discussion with someone you disagree with.
It’s inevitable that you’re going to end up talking only to people who agree with you because that’s the best way to avoid getting sued if you offend them.
Laws such as Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act damage social cohesion because they promote a culture of grievance with individuals encouraged to feel themselves insulted by other members of the community who have a viewpoint different from their own.
These were the themes of an important lecture delivered last week at the Lowy Institute media awards by New York Times columnist Bret Stephens entitled “The Dying Art of Disagreement”.
He spoke of the polarisation occurring in the United States as people choose to live where their neighbours share their politics. “That polarisation is personal: Fully 50 per cent of Republicans would not want their child to marry a Democrat, and nearly a third of Democrats return that sentiment. Interparty marriage has taken the place of inter-racial marriage as family taboo.”
Ill omen for civilisation
Stephens talked of how that polarisation has been exacerbated as issues that were once merely political and how when a question become an issue of morality anyone who disagrees with you can be presented as not just wrong, but immoral. And when someone is immoral you’re removed from any obligation to engage with their argument.
Which doesn’t bode well for the future of Western civilisation. Stephens is correct when he says: “Every great idea is really just a spectacular disagreement with some other great idea. Socrates quarrels with Homer. Aristotle quarrels with Plato. Locke quarrels with Hobbes and Rousseau quarrels with them both. Nietzsche quarrels with everyone. Wittgenstein quarrels with himself.”
As Stephens discussed in an interview with this newspaper: “The pre-condition for disagreement is listening, comprehension and even some empathy. Once you have profoundly understood what the other person is saying, then you can disagree.”
It’s understandable that sports administrators and company executives wish to use their personal status and the authority of their organisation to convince the public of the righteousness of political positions they either believe in themselves or which they think will benefit their business. But as they engage in such activities they need to consider whether any short-term gains they derive, either because they’ve signalled their virtue or increased their company’s profits, is worth the long-term cost of making their organisation a creature of partisan politics.
Sometimes social change is achieved through better means than attempting to ram opinions down people’s throats and calling opponents “bigots” and “racists” and “angry old white dudes”.
Stephens identified the need for empathy. Sometimes patience is required as well. Edmund Burke was part of the great 18th century disagreement on the meaning of the French Revolution. It’s a disagreement that continues to this day. In his Reflections on the Revolution in France he wrote this about change: “Time is required to produce that union of minds which alone can produce all good we aim at. Our patience will achieve more than our force.
(Image: Lowly Institute 2017)